Mexican in East

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    We didn't review this location but you can check out the review of the Chipotle in Winter Park.

    If there's one thing I'm sure to bring along before entering an Orlando-area Mexican restaurant, it's a bellyful of lowered expectations. It's not an elitist posture, but rather one founded on experiential forays into Tex-Mex hotbeds out West. Everything from their access to the finest chili peppers to their masa preparation reeks of superiority, resulting in indisputably toothsome dishes. So, with hopes not yet dashed, I headed out to El Palenque in East Orlando anticipating another ho-hum dining affair, and though in many ways that's precisely what I got, a few pleasant surprises were thrown in the mix to make the trip an all-round pleasant outing.

    The restaurant is named after the Mayan archeological site as well as a cockfighting ring (El Palenque's logo incorporates a fighter cock). A large mural of the Mayan ruins dominates the interior, but a series of smaller paintings created by the assistant cook are also worth a look, each illustration depicting a scene of a cockfight and the ancillary goings-on.

    From the looks of the sopa azteca ($4.99), it didn't seem the ol' rooster put up much of the fight. Shreds of chicken with corn, celery, carrots, queso and crunchy tortilla strips satisfied. Ask for two spoons, as the bowl is big enough for sharing. The red sauce staining the antojito-sized ground beef enchilada ($2.99) added enough zest to justify ordering it again. Carnitas, a popular filling for many dishes offered here, is made with pork that's roasted out back in a marinade of mojo, oranges and Coke. Stuff it inside a thick corn gordita ($3.99) and you've got yourself a substantial starter. Grilled beef, conversely, made for an insipid nosh, needy of some of their homemade serrano pepper hot sauce. If you're especially famished, doughy, crispy chimichangas ($8.99) will gratify. The two bloated rolls fried in peanut oil ooze with cheese and are served with refried beans and particularly flavorful yellow rice cooked in chicken broth.

    The real star of the meal was the three-pepper ranchero sauce slathered all over the bisteck ($12.99). The beef was a little tough, but the internal heat and savory smack generated by the sauce brought back memories of meals at Café Pasqual's in Santa Fe. The steak itself is a considerable slab, but I can only imagine how wondrous a meal this would've been with a better cut of beef.

    Considering they're made in-house, desserts didn't live up to expectations. Flan Napolitano ($2.99) had the proper consistency, but the custard was largely flavorless and lacked a deep caramel infusion. Tres leches cake ($5) wasn't very creamy at all and was too dense and heavy to resemble traditional three-milk cake. The flavor, in fact, bore a resemblance to Publix birthday cake.

    A bar in the middle of the restaurant is a draw for thirsty UCF students ' then again, the entire restaurant is a popular destination for college students and their families. If you're up for a beverage of the traditional, nonalcoholic kind, try a glass of homemade tamarindo. The tart liquefied tamarind is combined with sugar for an unexpectedly palatable and refreshing drink. So while it may be true that I came here with a bellyful of lowered expectations, I wound up leaving with a bellyful of optimism.

    Sad to say, there's not much of anything around lately that qualifies as genuine. Oranges are artificially colored, desserts are "naturally" sweetened, and don't get me started with the whole genetically altered deal. So finding an authentic eating place like Garibaldi's Mexican Restaurant is a treat.

    The restaurant is named after Plaza Garibaldi, both a tourist center and local gathering place in Mexico City, alive with an almost perpetual fiesta. Garibaldi's isn't quite that frenetic, but the constant traffic on North Semoran (near the corner of Colonial Drive) brings a steady flow of diners. By all means, even if the inside dining area is free, sit outdoors (since they opened a couple of years ago, they've added an oversized fountain that muffles the noise) on a balmy night and fantasize about even sunnier climes.

    The restaurant is named after Plaza Garibaldi, both a tourist center and local gathering place in Mexico City, alive with an almost perpetual fiesta. Garibaldi's isn't quite that frenetic, but the constant traffic on North Semoran (near the corner of Colonial Drive) brings a steady flow of diners. By all means, even if the inside dining area is free, sit outdoors (since they opened a couple of years ago, they've added an oversized fountain that muffles the noise) on a balmy night and fantasize about even sunnier climes.

    It's probably a credit to the research department of a certain fast-food chain that you will recognize many of the terms on Garibaldi's extensive menu: gordita, chimi-changa and chalupa all make an appearance. These ain't no Madison Avenue inventions but real food done in the traditional way. And perhaps that's the problem with "authentic" – it's generally not very flamboyant or exciting.

    "Fajitas de camerón" ($14) is just grilled shrimp, onions and peppers served with rice, beans, guacamole and tortillas for wrapping – not fancy but certainly tasty. "Flautas verdes" is nothing but corn tortillas rolled tightly around seasoned beef or chicken, then deep fried and topped with cheese and green salsa; it doesn't have fireworks or talking dogs, but it's $6.50 well spent.

    "Fajitas de camerón" ($14) is just grilled shrimp, onions and peppers served with rice, beans, guacamole and tortillas for wrapping – not fancy but certainly tasty. "Flautas verdes" is nothing but corn tortillas rolled tightly around seasoned beef or chicken, then deep fried and topped with cheese and green salsa; it doesn't have fireworks or talking dogs, but it's $6.50 well spent.

    Original dishes that do stand out are "fajitas Garibaldi" ($11), which adds chorizo sausage to a combination of chicken and beef on a sizzling iron pan, and "chile Colorado" ($7.95), a spicy beef and chili sauce platter. (And yes, it is served with beans – on the side). The selection of specialties is wide, but if you'd be happier with the standbys of tacos, burritos and enchiladas, there are 30 different combinations of same, along with chile rellenos and chalupas (all $6.50-$7).

    Mexico's Plaza Garibaldi is also known for strolling mariachi bands, and we were quite thrilled to see a band tuning up in the parking lot when we drove up. The band is there several nights a week (call ahead). Be aware that they don't "stroll" but, like their compatriots in Mexico City, charge $15 a song if you want them to play. If you enjoy the authentic, ask for a real folk song (I suggest "La Negrita"), the experience is unique and worth the price just as the food is worth the trip.

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